Banding week turns multi-purpose

Last week was banding week for the gulls of Appledore, though this year, we packed in much more than simply banding adult gulls as is our wont. This year, we certainly did band birds, though our efforts are now focused on a specific population. We are striving to get both mates of a pair banded so we can address questions about where mates go in the winter, who, if either, provides care to the young after they leave the island, and so on.

Banding is only half the work of course. Once a bird is banded, the whole point is for people to see it and report it. And for us, on island during the breeding season, the point is to look for previously banded birds and find out where they are nesting and with whom. Time on the island is expensive and limited, so we often sacrifice the searching for banded birds in favor of banding new ones.


The team! kneeling: Kristen Covino (L) and Mary Everett. Back row, left to right: Mike McCarthy, Ray Stacy, Rene Borrero, Brielle Michener, Steevie Litchfield-Groves, Dan Walton, Sarah Courchesne

This year, we were lucky to have a team that was able to do an absolutely brilliant job of both. All the members of our team were dedicated, attentive, and up to a challenge, so, starting on the first day, we gave them a map of the island and sent them out to look for banded birds (and to figure out where, specifically, they were seeing those birds in a place they’ve never been before). The resighting efforts did not relent, and many of the team members even gave their free time to the activity. The result was multiple sweeps of the entire island and some very thorough data.

When the team members were not out looking for birds, they assisted in banding and sampling birds. Dr. Kristen Covino, now of Loyola Marymount University in California, is working on a study looking at testosterone levels and behavior in gulls. One of our summer interns on the island this year, Brielle Michener, an undergrad at University of Rhode Island, is working on that project, and the first phase involved some intensive field work.

For the testosterone study, we needed to get blood samples in a time-sensitive manner, and also obtain a contemporaneous fecal sample. This involved the highly scientific technique described as “putting the bird in a plastic bin lined with a trash bag and wait for it to poop.” Brielle and Kristen then spent their evenings processing the blood and feces for later laboratory analysis.


The team waiting for a gull to poop, and a gull waiting to not be in a box anymore.

Our second intern, Rene Borrero, of Northern Essex Community College, lent his hands to the poop sampling, and his summer project, likely looking at eggshell thickness and hatching success, will kick into high gear as the chicks all start hatching in the next week or so.

Both Brielle and Rene are off to a great start, and seem to be retaining positivity and bright outlooks despite all the feces.


From left: Mike, Sharon, Brielle, and Steevie

The rest of the team consisted of three Northern Essex students: biology majors Mike McCarthy and Steevie Litchfield-Groves, and lab science major Ray Stacy were all willing to jump into any task that needed doing, from catching birds, to drawing blood, to data recording. Sharon McDermot, Northern Essex’s Director of Academic Affairs Operations, joined us for a couple of days, though I wish it could have been longer, given her competence and enthusiasm. Dan Walton, an intrepid soul long out of college himself, became interested in the project after seeing me speak at a Nashua Audubon Society meeting, and contacted me about coming along this year. Lucky he did because he proved to be an enormously prolific re-sighter, going out for hours before breakfast and after dinner each day.

I am grateful to all our team members for giving of their time, and I also want to thank the people who contributed the funds to make it possible to get this team out the island. Tracy Holmes, Bill Clark, Sharon McDermot, and Brad Natti all sent donations to pay for the team’s room and board this past week, and this amazing team wrung every last data point they could out of their time on island.

The only drawback is this giant stack of data sheets that all need entering into the database. But that’s really the best kind of problem to have.

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